Our family came into volunteering for World Relief quite softly and quietly and then crashing into it all at once. It's been an adventure that will hopefully last a lifetime.
A few years ago, World Relief made its presence known in our community around the time the world's eyes were being awakened to the refugee crisis in Syria, resulting in a mass exodus of families risking their lives to find refuge anywhere in the world that would take them. The images of this woke up our community in a call to action. I diligently signed my name on the line and stepped up as an enthusiastic volunteer, taking the volunteer training at World Relief and putting their ever-popular “you are welcome here” sign in my front yard. It was there that it became clear that I/we were in no way ready to meet what the organization needed from us. I was crestfallen for a time, putting my enthusiastically raised hand back in my pocket, waiting for the time when my then-young and very busy family might be better suited for the job.
Over these past few years, our children grew and I survived a very long year battling stage 3 breast cancer. To say that I felt indebted to the community that gave and supported my family so much that year would be an understatement. To say that our desire to give back was stronger than ever...also an understatement. And that “you are welcome here” sign in our front yard stood there, in my opinion, meaningless...only to advertise that we are an open and loving family that welcomes any and all in to our community. It was a powerful and purposeful message with little ethos to back it up. It wasn’t long after that that it was brought to my attention, via the World Relief Facebook page, that our community was in need of “Friendship Partners.” There it stood like a lightning rod--a calling that now was our time. Forty-plus families from the Congo were being resettled in Appleton.
And that's where we crashed into it all at once! A week later, we were matched with a family whose size and energy could rival our own. On paper, the family is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although this family lived much of their lives in a refugee camp in Burundi, where three of their seven children were born.
This family changed our lives in one dinner. In one night, into our home walked the reality of the crisis happening in one of the most dangerous countries to live in. Eleven people, ranging in ages from 55 to only 1 year old, filled us to the brim. Only two of these people speak any English. Ten children--theirs and ours--played happily together, having no way to communicate with words. That experience alone was one of the most eye-opening moments, watching the children from worlds apart have no idea that they are/were in fact worlds apart. They had no idea...they laughed, they played and they forged friendships without words and broke down cultural barriers. In one night it was clear to us that we weren’t just making an impact on them. Even though it was our job to welcome them and to be ambassadors of our community, it was them who made an impact on us. It was their irresistible positivity, despite the lives they are coming from and the uphill battle they have simply assimilating in a community that couldn’t be more foreign (I mean snow, the end). It was their patience in tackling another new language (I say "another" because many of them are working on their third or even fifth) language. And most of all, it was their out pouring of love and gratitude. The opportunity to be a friendship partner is one of the best decisions our family has ever made. And I can rest a little easier knowing that the sign in our front yard now a has a smidge more meaning.
We call our new friends our “Congolese family," since every child in the family has a different last name (which made making those first appointments we took them to extremely confusing!). Our relationship has continued to strengthen, and the more English they learn and Kinyarwanda we learn, the more our conversations are a little less comically awkward. I look forward to the future, to holding the space as they grow into themselves...no longer as refugees, but as strong and confident Congolese Americans that stand as role models and lighthouses of hope for those they had to leave behind--their family and longtime friends, still waiting on hope and a prayer, to be welcomed into any safe and reliable country that will take them.
Lindsey and John